Building a Movement from the Computer Up
I spend most of my time working at a college to support their communication efforts. While I predominately work to enhance users' experience and decrease functional friction points, at times my role encompasses managing crisis communications in the wake of targeted outrage, student protest, and often alt-right distain. While we work to never self-silence our institutional values out of fear of opposing backlash, we work to mitigate risk, both to ourselves as an institution and to individuals who may be uniquely poised to be harmed. We constantly work to both amplify and curve our reach for the most effective outcomes. It leaves myself constantly reflecting on the strategies that help, or hurt, movements as they try to amplify positive reach in a way that enhances their ability to enact change.
Large, anti-queer speech from a professor at my alma mater left me once again thinking of this, but this time, from the student's perspective.
By George, she sure said that: a breach of speech ethics?
Most mornings I roll over in bed and take out my phone and skim through social media to see what's going on in the world, view the amazing work of my fellow photographers and colleagues, and catch up on the latest memes as I poorly cling to cultural relevance. It's safe to say that both by vocation and my social media habits, I consume a more than healthy heaping of digital content.
So when a professor of Philosophy, Marie George, published a piece trans identities and religion as a paid ad (below) in the Torch, a student run publication at my alma mater, I was quick to find out. In response to a assumedly pro-LGBT+ talk last month, she proposed that it's "necessary to look at specific Church documents" to see what the Church teaches on "transgenderism." Among Pope Francis and other doctrines, George quoted lbid., #285.
"[T]he young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created... Sex education should help young people to accept their own bodies...."
Some of the quotes included were fragmented, missing segments that altered the meaning. Regardless of quote fragmentation, it's important to remember that nearly any socially valuable text can be used as justification for a preference, on all sides of a political or social pedagogy, including even this article. I'm curious what quotes she pulled for her book, Christianity and Extraterrestrials? A Catholic Perspective. (in this clip she talks about rational being's right to life, specifically with regard to aliens. The humanity extended to aliens and not humans is an irony is not lost on me)
Paraphrased best from a professor of rhetoric, her move from a rejected op-ed (rejected only because of the lack of original work) to an advertisement displays not only an unwillingness to listen to critique, but an ability to use money and standing to get one's views expressed. This statement is anti-student, faculty, and staff of gender minority backgrounds and works to loiter power and authority over groups that have far less social capital. This is only compounded by her course offerings. St. John's, as a Catholic University, requires 3 philosophy and 3 theology courses, making students mandatory attendance, thus, her subject of expertise only deepens an authoritarian position of a professor within the University. While religious and philosophical study can round knowledge, deepen critical thinking, and lend context to social-political history, this article aims rather to decrease access to LGBT+ acceptance.
While tenure protects free speech, it is often under the scope of political speech outside the academy which this certainly does not fall under. As a former professor stated, her statements are neither "aimed at or oriented toward a pedagogical goal or a goal of inquiry [...B]uying ad space in a student publication, then signing it as a professor are strong-arm political tactics to get your view across."
A Long History of Anti-Queer Culture
In my time on campus, any standardized queer gathering was prohibited. Student run clubs, attempts at informal support groups, or any LGBT+ focused discussion was banned with faculty and staff required to report it to administration. I had just enough internalized homophobia and a large enough financial aid package to justify attending.
The University's stance for many years was best summarized by Dominic Scianna's, vice president of Media Relations, 2011 statement:
“St. John’s is a Catholic university and, as such, Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles permeate and inform University activities,” he said. “And while we would not recognize a gay alliance, the University does not expect its students to compromise their identities and values, and St. John’s students should not expect that the University compromise its own institutional identities and values.”
After constant fighting, the student led LGBT+ campus group, Spectrum, was founded around 2014 after years of constant backlash from the administration which reached the public spotlight in a 1993 New York Time's article and 2011 coverage by both the Huffington Post and NY Daily News following LGBT+ student protests that erupted following Tyler Clementi's suicide at Rutgers University, a nearby campus.
During my time on campus, I had organized and participated in several public debates on campus alongside the now dissolved debate team. We mostly tackled the best way to further a movement through conversations like whether or not marriage equality was the best focus of the Gay Rights Movement and whether or not Caitlyn Jenner should be supported by the broader LGBT+ community.
So how do you pressure change?
As of right now, the University has not released an official statement. These statements often commit to action, such as the temporary or permanent termination of the offending faculty, or institution values, such as issuing a publication policy for language targeted at marginalized identities. Often, institutions often wait to see how contained backlash is.
The main factors that determine whether or not the University will respond, and the degree to which they will respond, are:
How widespread is the news? Has the news spread to external audiences? Have any major publications picked up the story?
What are the impacts of the story? Have Alumnae petitioned to withhold funds? Is threatening enrollment? Is there an extreme threat of harm? Case Study: MHC's response following backlash for a logo proposal where about 2,000 alumnae signed a petition threatening to withhold donations until the college avowed to 'kill' the logo.
What is the likelihood that it will blow over? They'll wait it out if they can.
What can they actually do? For example, in cases of reported sexual abuse, until there is a legal ruling supporting claims, many institutions face the threat of being sued for libel if they make a public statement naming the accused. While transparency normally preferred, most can agree that justice wouldn't be giving money to the accused from disclosure.
Moving through the bureaucratic process can be effective, but often slow. Manipulating the aforementioned variables can prompt more direct and timely actions. This can be done in several ways.
Contact press: you should research fitting publications, craft a press pitch that summarizes the hook, presents key information, and offers a moving quote. Make it an appealing story that decreases the amount of work the writer may need to do (including past articles are helpful). At the publication, figure out who is in charge of the section this could be published in (e.g. if it's a story about the Red Storm soccer team, you should find out who is in charge of the sports sections of local news papers or research soccer specific publications). Outside publications can help spread the news and create an external prompt for action.
Exacerbate the impacts: perhaps start partitions that threaten donation, have alumni reach out or start a petition. They can also comment on social media posts that prospective students may see. You can also plan protest during high importance moments for the campus (accepted student days, etc). You should make sure to get whatever permits you need to prevent roadblocks.
Keep effort sustained until there's actually action: most things blow over within days with short bursts of outrage.
Propose changes: make a clear list of acceptable actions, whether that's reprimanding action, regulations on what the student paper can or can't say, define exactly what speech is or isn't protected by tenure, etc.
Publish your own op ed: this often has a minimal impact, but you can try to strengthen it by practicing SEO best practices. Moz and Hubspot have good suggestions. You should also work to make your website handicap accessible in compliance with WCAG standards.
There's always the chance for backlash, whether it's larger critiques for your movement or smaller protest or through individually targeted responses such as doxing or contacting your employer. A local site frequently publishes the names, address, phone numbers, and social media posts of liberal leaning students and staff (example).
Some things to remember:
You can't always control the narrative. Case study: Oberlin College had posted an article in the student news paper where they talked about how some meals were culturally appropriative. This article got picked up by mainstream media and went viral with most of the coverage saying that the students were dramatic and going to far.
Audit your personal security: You should closely examine your online security and weigh how much risk you're willing to take on. Assume that you can be found and that no private space (physical or digital) is actually private. Reply All has an incredibly helpful list of tools for securing your digital footprint. They've also done coverage on what happens when negative spin get's out of control. Intel Techinques also covers how to practice better data security and has released this incredible workbook. Security keys, authenticator apps, password management apps, and data breach databases are good tools to keep in your arsenal.